Mayor John Hamilton peered through the glass window of the Bloomington Fire Department’s third post, surprised to see an empty station.
“I guess they’re out on a run,” Hamilton said, walking the perimeter of the building.
He tried out his master key, a small bronze key that unlocks most doors in Bloomington city government. The key failed to unlock the doors of the limestone one-story building, where just a few of Bloomington’s 650 public employees work.
“I’m just gonna leave them my card here, so they know I stopped by.”
As Hamilton was leaving, firefighter Dane Young approached the station.
“Hey! How’s it going?” the mayor said. “I was trying to break in.”
Young was getting back with one of the University Station Third Battalion’s fire trucks. BFD Headquarters finally got someone down from Chicago for repairs, Young explained and the Third Battalion seized the opportunity for help with long-neglected maintenance.
“So what happens if they get a call here?” the mayor asked. “Do they respond from headquarters?”
“Well,” said Tom Figolah, another BFD firefighter. “They’re out of service right now.”
Hamilton is in his fourth week of office and now faces the issues that got him elected: community-wide high speed Internet, affordable housing, a city tech park, the hospital move, public education and jobs.
But the overarching challenge of the last four weeks has been getting government to work.
As he talked with Young and Figolah, Hamilton learned what wasn’t working for BFD.
They have no money, yet they had several repairs that needed attention.
A new GPS-based dispatch system was also causing distractions and headaches.
The washing machines at headquarters were Sears-brand, standard clothes washers and weren’t fully washing uniforms.
“I would think that’d be tough?” Hamilton said.
“It’s not appropriate for our gear,” Figolah said, adding that the BFD union was looking for deals on industrial machines.
“We found a deal that we couldn’t pass up,” Figolah said. “They weren’t gonna buy them for us. So as a union, we purchased them.”
Hamilton listened, concerned.
“The vote was half and half almost,” Figolah continued, “Because if we start purchasing our stuff now, where does it end?”
“I hope we can fix that,” the mayor said. “I appreciate that you guys did that, but I don’t want to set that pattern, either.”
The men moved into the unit’s kitchen and living room, where the floorboards were ripped up and the carpet was scraggly.
The third post’s fire chief Capt. Scott McKnight arrived and conversed with Hamilton about BFD’s needs.
McKnight explained the need for software to match the GPS dispatch system, which sends trucks out of appropriate zones on runs.
Almost all of the Third Battalion’s calls are campus runs, as the University Station is located on campus.
Hamilton was surprised to learn that 40 percent of BFD’s total runs are to IU.
Figolah and Young discussed their relationship with the IU Board of Trustees, who have a deal worked out with the city for fire protection.
The Trustees pay the salaries of the Third Battalion employees, who have served IU since 1859, Figolah said.
“I haven’t talked to IU about all that,” Hamilton said. “But I think they know they’re getting a good deal and an important service and if we were to go away, that would be a big expense for them.”
Capt. McKnight and Hamilton discussed IU’s long-term plan to remove the University Station to make way for a grand thoroughfare along North Woodlawn Avenue.
When Hamilton left, he told the men he would meet with the Trustees and discuss the relationship between BFD and IU.
“That’s my job, with them, to help knock those barriers down so they can be better and better at what they do,” Hamilton said. “That’s kind of a basic job of a mayor.”
While Hamilton has work to do with BFD, the changes in transparency are already felt by Young, who has worked for BFD for 20 years.
“Honestly?” Young said, pointing to Hamilton. “I’ve met him twice. I never met the last mayor.”
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